Kqyn Kuka is Working to Build, Repair and Restore Relationships Between the State and Tribal Nations
BY SIERRA CISTONE
Just outside the fray of Great Falls, Montana, cutting through Giant Spring State Park, the 200-foot Roe River holds the Guinness World Record for the shortest river. It’s here where Kqyn Kuka is spending a hot August afternoon, chatting with visitors who wander along the superlative-worthy waterway.
“How far does this trail go?” some people ask Kuka, who’s clad in her Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks uniform. Kuka talks with the visitors about the beauty of the nearby Missouri River that the Roe feeds into and advises them on the best sights to see while touring the area. Even in a brief interaction, Kuka’s generous nature shines.
An ostensible and bona fide willingness to share her time and knowledge makes talking with Kuka easy. She faces you when you speak and exudes complete presence of mind in a conversation. All of this is what gives Kuka her superpower: building connections. On top of decades of experience, it’s what makes her the perfect person to serve as the first tribal liaison and diversity coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The position was established just last year and was born out of an evident need for the state to be better at building relationships and working with the tribes across Montana, Kuka said.
Wildlife don’t recognize borders between state and tribal land, which can make management of wildlife complicated. More than a century of conflict and tension between the state wildlife agency and the tribes in Montana left some tribes apprehensive to work with the state on wildlife issues. After a reckoning on its relationships with the tribes, the state established the tribal liaison position in an attempt to build a better future.
A lifetime of experience building bridges over troubled waters and straddling the worlds of both tribal nations and the state landed Kuka at the front of this shift in state wildlife management. Growing the relationship won’t happen overnight, Kuka says, but it’s critical work as both entities work to manage wildlife.
Kuka grew up on the Blackfeet Nation and is a Blackfeet descendant, just shy of the one-quarter blood quantum needed to be enrolled as a tribal member. Her childhood was spent in the aspen groves and creeks just outside of Glacier National Park, and helping on her grandfather’s cattle ranch.
Her father was King Kuka, a renowned artist both in and outside of Indian Country. When her father got a job teaching art at the Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Kuka went with him to study art herself and take classes under her father.
“My father used to say, ‘You can do your artwork, but make sure you have a career,’” Kuka said.
Kuka’s father died before she graduated college, so she left Rosebud and returned to Montana to take his advice, finishing her studies at Salish and Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation. This time, instead of pursuing art, she studied environmental science with an emphasis on wildlife and fisheries.
Right after graduating, she landed a job as a water safety officer for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Kuka quickly realized she not only enjoyed working in law enforcement but also had a knack for it.
“When you take those personality tests, I wasn’t the one that should be in law enforcement,” Kuka said. “But I thought, ‘That’s why I should be. Because I can reach out to all members of the public, and I can help them.’”
When Kuka was first hired as a game warden, she was one of only two women on the state’s force. As a law enforcement agent for the wildlife department, she worked difficult hours, long days and occasionally found herself in dangerous situations. She issued fines, educated the public and worked frequently with tribal nations.
Kuka spent a few years assigned to the FWP district along the southern border of the Blackfeet Nation. It wasn’t long before she began hearing about a problem with serial poachers on private property outside but along the reservation border. At the time, it was an in-progress investigation for FWP, and Kuka sought permission from the Blackfeet Nation to assist with the investigation.
The investigation culminated in a high-speed chase that crossed onto the reservation where the suspects crashed the car and fled. Kuka seized the vehicle and discovered guns as well as three illegal deer. As evidence mounted, Kuka and the tribe’s wildlife department came together to identify, question and arrest the suspects.
The arrests put an end to the long-standing poaching issue that had posed problems for people both on and off the reservation. Following the investigation, the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department requested that Kuka lead tribal game warden trainings in interviewing and interrogation—critical skills for game wardens. Kuka said the investigation was ultimately a foundational era of trust-building between the tribe and herself as a game warden for the state.
Being a game warden became a deep part of her identity. Early on in her career, Kuka realized she wanted more responsibility and found she excelled in leadership roles.
She worked the five years necessary before becoming a field training officer so she could train new recruits. Kuka traveled to leadership courses and workshops and took on extra projects when possible, all in hopes of one day becoming a sergeant that would oversee all the game wardens in a district.
“I wanted to take each game warden’s personalities and strengths and build this team of camaraderie,” Kuka said.
Kuka applied for the sergeant position five separate times in different districts and took on acting sergeant duty twice. In 2020, she was finally offered the sergeant position for which she had spent years preparing. But life interrupted her shot at the long-awaited promotion.
Not long before the sergeant position opened, Kuka lost her 6-month-old son. The loss left her struggling with grief so deep that she said everyday life was impossible. Soon after, a sergeant position opened up. She remembers feeling conflicted about applying for the position, but ultimately decided to go for it with a push from her husband.
Soon into her term as sergeant, Kuka had to recover a drowned victim and around the same time, one of her daughters severely broke her leg in a fall. Kuka said the culmination of devastating circumstances became too much.
“I was the first female sergeant the State of Montana has ever had,” Kuka said. “I only had it for weeks before I lost my mind.”
Kuka recalls checking in with her supervisor from the emergency waiting room while waiting for her injured daughter. They agreed the timing of her accepting the sergeant position had not been right.
“I was torn,” Kuka said. “I gave up my badge and thought I was giving up my identity.”
But fate had something else in store for Kuka.
Around the same time Kuka relinquished her title as game warden sergeant, Dustin Temple, the deputy director for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, created the tribal liaison position. For Temple, the need was critical and long overdue.
“We had just found ourselves tripping over our own feet as we tried to work with tribal governments,” Temple said. “I felt like we needed some focused capacity.”
Kuka’s resume was so unique and perfect for the position that Temple created the position with Kuka in mind. In many ways, she had already been acting as a makeshift tribal liaison throughout her time as a game warden. She was the person who people turned to in order to answer tribal-related questions and provide expertise on how to work with tribal nations respectfully. She had been a part of recruitment teams that worked to bring more Native voices into state government, and helped the Office of Indian Affairs with their own tribal relations training.
“She has a servant’s spirit,” Temple said. “I think Kqyn has accomplished more in 18 months than this department has accomplished in decades.”
Reservations are sovereign nations, meaning working with the tribes is the same as stepping into another country, Kuka explained. But that’s not how wildlife populations work. They move back and forth across borders as if all the land is the same. Rather than a challenge, Kuka sees this as an opportunity for the tribes and the state to come together to co-manage the animals that everyone has a stake in caring for.
On the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, problems with previous FWP employees had prompted the tribe to issue a memorandum that restricted wardens from entering the reservation without prior permission. The memorandum is still in place, but Jason Whiteman, tribal member and administrator with Northern Cheyenne’s Natural Resource Department, said that thanks to Kuka, the relationship between the state and tribe has begun to change.
“She has opened up a dialogue with the tribe to improve the relationship,” Whiteman said.
Out of this dialogue came an understanding that there was a need for cultural sensitivity training for game wardens. Now, Kuka is working to get this training off the ground.
As the liaison, Kuka works with all eight federally recognized tribes in Montana. That often means traveling to remote parts of the state to work with different tribes. But Kuka was born and raised in both Montana and Indian Country and knows that showing up in person is key to building trust.
“The more they see me, the more they say, ‘That’s Kqyn,’” Kuka said. “And the more I hand out my phone number and business card.”
Kuka’s business card is standard with the state wildlife department’s logo and her contact info. But on the bottom reads Kuka’s motto: “From stranger to neighbor.”
Bridging the gap from stranger to neighbor is something Kuka has been doing her whole career. It’s a skill that’s founded on an inherent aptitude for working with people, and one that’s woven into the fabric of Kuka’s identity. It’s a skill that is an imperative asset for the state’s wildlife department.
“Sometimes you like a neighbor that doesn’t bother you,” Kuka said. “And then you want a neighbor you can rely on and borrow the sugar. . . I want to be the neighbor [tribes] can rely on.”
Sierra Cistone is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Missoula, Montana. Her work focuses on stories about conservation and our human connection to the rest of the natural world.